Review: “Beartown” by Fredrik Backman

Beartown

I have always taken pride in the fact that I’m a pretty fast reader. As a kid, when I used to drag my parents to bookstores, I would often finish a book in the time it took them to buy me more books. A pitfall of my speedy reading is that I sometimes miss the small pleasures that come from the “non-important” parts of the story. Ever since I started blogging, I would like to believe that I have become a more mindful reader. Thankfully, that didn’t manage to put a significant dent in my reading speed. Till I put my hands on Beartown.

Today, I’m participating in my third Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. My first time around, I stayed up for the entire duration and finished 7 books. The next time, I was overconfident and fell asleep around Hour 4. This time, I was all set with a list of nine books. But 10 hours in, I just finished my first book and I am not feeling the slightest twinge of regret. Because Beartown is so brilliant that I wanted to savor every single sentence of it, competitive reading be damned.

As an author, Fredrik Backman has this talent of crafting an intricate novel about human nature revolving around characters that might otherwise come across as mundane. I read A Man Called Ove before it was a New York Times bestseller and the source material of an Oscar-winning film. The protagonist was this gnarly, antisocial curmudgeon that people went out of their way to avoid. But by the time I finished the book, I was completely in love with him. I mourned the passing of his beloved wife and I cheered when he found a new “family” in an evolving Sweden.

Anybody who reads Beartown will also find themselves rooting for its characters, a hard feat to achieve since the book has over ten protagonists. Mr Backman has surpassed himself because he manages to get the reader to care not just for its characters, but the entire town as well. Of course, this doesn’t mean every single character is likable. But the reader comes away with an in-depth understanding of what motivates every single person in Beartown. Though much darker than Mr Backman’s other works, Beartown is undoubtedly his magnum opus.

Beartown is the story of an isolated Swedish town at the edge of the woods that is slowly but surely dying. The residents believe that there is only way to save their home: a national victory for their local ice hockey team, that will bring much-needed investment  and publicity to revitalize the area.

To that end, the entire community pins their hopes and dreams on Kevin, the star player. But when a rape accusation by one of their own, on the day of their big game, leaves the team floundering, things take a dark and menacing turn. The book is full of scenes that bring a tear to one’s eye, or make the reader scream with outrage or chuckle at Mr Backman’s sharp and darkly comic insights. The events that unfold are told from the perspective of different characters, adding layer upon layer to this maze of a novel.

There is another noteworthy and unusual technique used by Backman: repetition, but not for repetition’s sake. Various phrases, sayings, even sounds, when repeated skillfully offer new, dazzling interpretations at different points in the story. The character that’s speaking at that particular moment or the sequence of events unfolding then and there are what colour these phrases, thus creating a looping narrative that continually draws the readers in and makes them feel the full implications of what’s going on. The narrative continually emboldens the heavy, darker tone of the novel which, while not as light as his previous novels (though none of Mr Backman’s works can truly be considered light), still preserves its basic human-ness and even persevering, uplifting spirit.

Lastly, for me, Beartown was an outstanding story for its shrewd observations on how society deals with rape allegations, especially in the context of sportsmen and teenagers. I wish I could pepper this entire review with the quotes I highlighted while reading the book, but that would result in around half of the book being reproduced here. Beartown is a must-read for anyone who loves a good, smart and yet touching story.

 I was provided an Advance Reading Copy by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: “A Window Opens” by Elisabeth Egan

a-window-opens

There was this article in The New York Times a couple of years ago about Amazon, which sparked a larger debate about work culture at tech companies, that kept flashing in my head as I read Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens. Although the debut novelist sends her protagonist to work at a company called Scroll, the similarities between the two retail giants are fairly obvious. Both start off selling books and quickly expand to include anything a customer might want. Both make use of computer-generated data for a laser-like focus on commercial success. And both, apparently–if the Times report is to be believed–expect nothing less than complete, servile allegiance from their employees.

As A Window Opens begins, Alice is a part-time books columnist and a full-time mother of three. A New Jersey suburbanite, she enjoys spending time with her best friend, who owns an independent bookstore, her lawyer husband, and their extended family. The only disruption in her merry life is her father’s cancer, which has robbed him of his voice but appears to be in remission. All that changes when her husband’s career goes off the rails, and Alice is forced to seek a full-time job.

At first, the position at Scroll sounds ideal. Although Alice doesn’t understand much of the jargon of her new workplace, she is thrilled to be “Content Manager-slash-Industry Liaison,” or, as she is told by her chummy supervisor Genevieve, “an arbiter of impeccable taste,” collecting titles to sell in upscale Scroll “lounges.” She learns to call printed books “carbon based” and to mouth tenets like “we don’t sell merchandise, we sell the future.”

Although the job quickly becomes more than full-time and Alice misses “the kindergarten ice cream social, the first day of school, a PTA meeting,” she is content. Only just as Alice is almost accustomed to both the new grind and the loss of family time, her father’s health takes a turn for the worse. And then her bosses begin to ask for more, pushing Alice into a new position that targets her sensitivities both as a longtime bibliophile and as a mother.

That’s where Ms Egan, currently the books editor at Glamour magazine after a brief stint at Amazon Publishing, falters. Although the “pivot,” to use a Scroll word, isn’t that far-fetched, it is one step too far. It’s all a little too perfectly horrid, just as Genevieve is a little too duplicitous, bonding with Alice over House Hunters before firing off denigrating emails to Alice’s work account.

Likewise, her colleagues–all younger and apparently childless–are a little too clueless. Not one seems to have any understanding of how cancer affects a family, as if illness were only confined to the over-35 crowd, and when, on a visit to corporate headquarters, Alice overhears the line “What can I say? She’s a mom,” she recognizes it as an insult.

 With its sharp, perceptive humour, this novel plays like The Devil Wears Prada for the online giant, poking fun at the kind of ridiculous situations that anyone who has worked with a start-up will recognize. But A Window Opens lacks The Devil Wears Prada‘s moment of realization–that is, any revelation about the awful boss’s humanity. While we do get to see the toll of the stress on Genevieve–“her nails were dull, bitten to the quick. There was a greenish cast to her skin“–we never learn what motivated her. Without more understanding of how she became the “befriend then berate” leader who so disappointed Alice, Genevieve remains one-dimensional, as do too many of the supporting characters in this book.

Ms Egan obviously tapped into the zeitgeist with her debut, capturing not only the craziness of an Amazon-like company but also the debate over the “Lean In” philosophy that would have women, even mothers of three, commit to their jobs at any cost. She does so with wit, weaving the family stories into the workplace saga. But at almost-400 pages, A Window Opens is a little too long for what is simply a humourous, topical novel. The Scroll jargon must have been great fun to write, but replacing some of that with more fully realized characters would have made this book better.

My New Year Reading Resolution

Many of us readers like to think of ourselves as unlike everyone else. We’re not macho or ego-driven, but retiring, introspective, and thoughtful, right? But anyone who’s spent time around bookworms knows we can be deeply competitive, whether we’re airily noting the time we read War and Peace in seventh grade or offhandedly mentioning that we read 200 books a year, no big deal. These two forms of literary competition tend to belong to warring factions, the snobs and the every-reader. The snob turns up her nose at the idea that reading 15 Y.A. books means anything at all, as she prefers to read Dostoevsky; the every-reader reviles snobs who “tell people how to read,” but often loves to humblebrag about how many books (Y.A. or non-) he plowed through last week. Regardless, we’re almost all competing, on some level, to be the best, most readery reader we know.

Increasingly, with literary snobbishness on its heels (after all, it’s hard to love a snob), the every-reader seems to be dictating the rules, and the rules of the game are: read more books and win. New Year’s is a particularly competitive season, as we tot up our year’s worth of books and set more ambitious goals for next year. People write articles or tweets about their own reading resolutions, and suddenly even our ambitious goals seem pathetic, and must be augmented again. A friend felt the need to assure me that though she’s not taking the Goodreads Reading Challenge in 2015, she’ll probably still read 100 books this year — yes, even when we’re not competing, we’re competing.

Admittedly, it’s hard to resist a little competition. For those of us who loved reading as kids, we quickly learned to associate reading massive piles of books with having long “book-worms” on the classroom wall or scoring brownie points with our Lit teachers, and it’s hard to let go of that feeling of urgency even when we supposedly mature. A guy I used to date had gotten into it by proxy. Once, he mentioned that a friend had told him that his girlfriend reads 10 books a month. In a somewhat smug tone, he added, “I bet you read more than that, though, right?” Yep, just two bros, arguing over whose significant other reads more books every 30 days. I felt a petty urge to say “Yeah, of course,” but I knew I couldn’t — and what’s more, I suddenly hated the part of myself that cared about “winning.”

There’s a quote I often see on literary Pinterests and Facebook walls, usually Photoshopped onto an image of dusty bookshelves: “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” This quote, attributed to Mortimer J. Adler, the author of How to Read a Book, espouses an easy-to-love sentiment: It’s not about winning, but about having a rich experience. Yet how many of us self-identified bookworms love to casually drop into conversation that we read a book a day, or avidly update our Goodreads pages to ensure everyone knows we’ve read yet another book?

Last year, my New Year’s resolution was to become a better reader, and it led to a blissful year of reading. Instead of spending my evenings watching pirated TV shows, I spent them with novels — usually — and I turned off all my football match notifications so I could read without finding myself checking my phone every 20 seconds for a yellow card or a substitution. After starting my own book blog and working for Publisher’s Weekly, things have only gotten better. A friend asked me the other day if reading for work makes it less fun, and I honestly answered no; reading is a skill that grows more pleasurable and fulfilling the more we practice it, and being pushed to read more only enhances my joy in it.

That said, I shy away from setting resolutions to read a certain number of books next year. Pushing myself to read more and more books can lead to undesirable consequences — dismissing longer or more difficult books as too much of a time investment, racing through books that would yield more if I read them more slowly. I don’t just want to become a more prolific reader, but a better reader, and, in the words of Mortimer Adler, “You must tackle books that are beyond you … unless you stretch, you will not learn.” Active, difficult reading takes time away from speeding through a checklist, but the rewards are far greater.

There’s a small, competitive voice in my head urging me to make 2015 the year I read more books than ever, but my New Year’s resolution is to ignore that voice. I’m not even going to resolve to read the “impressive” books I shamefully long to be able to drop into party conversation, like Ulysses or Infinite Jest, though I plan to read them someday (apparently they’re pretty good). Instead, I’m just resolving to use my reading time more meaningfully, not getting through books but letting them get through to me. I want to take more notes, maybe even annotate my pristine pages, and invest my time in fully exploring those books that offer the most to me as a reader.

I want 2015 to be the year that I don’t pick up the 170-page book solely because the 600-page one would prevent me from carving new notches on my bookcase. After all, my favourite book this year demanded great commitment and many hours from me — far more than most I read — and it was worth every second. I want to read complex, stylized books slowly, deliberately, examining the artistic choices and subtleties of meaning, not hastily, with a buzz in the back of my head reminding me of all the other books I need to get to next.

This year, I am resolving to apply that philosophy more mindfully to my own reading practices. Here’s hoping that we’ll all stop feeling like we have to read at the speed of light — and make sure everyone knows — in the new year.